CEA Fails Women, AGAIN

Given last year’s utterly embarrassing and widely reported failure on the part of Consumer Electronics Association’s (CEA) president and CEO Gary Shapiro in response to being asking his opinion on “booth babes” and the subsequent backlash, I was hopeful 2013 would be a much better year.

Never could I have imagined — or thought it was even possible — that Shapiro and the CEA organization could actually do WORSE at last week’s 2013 CES show — especially given that they had an entire year to prepare for what surely would be a topic people would watching for how they handled and the position they came out with.

Sadly, that’s EXACTLY what happened. Not only did CEA do nothing to make improvements in the past year, but this year they actually contradicted themselves in separate statements to news outlets, continue to lack leadership in taking meaningful action to bring more women into technology, AND, openly tried to throw a women’s organization under the bus and blame the media for all the backlash they received. All the while, they continued to abdicate any responsibility for the type of impression women will have of how they will be treated and welcomed in the industry when they attend the CES trade show.

The question I have for you is this. If this type of attire and behavior would not be acceptable in the workplace, why is it and why do we continue to tolerate it at our trade shows? Are they not an extended part of our workplace, where we should expect the same personnel policies would apply? And, genuinely asking, has anybody seen an actual competitive advantage or increase in sales that either they or a company they know of has gained from employing these methods?

I started observing the online trending on booth babes about a week before the show and watched the developments and responses come flying in. I did this to see if 1) booth babes would or would not be raised again and 2) to be sure I gave everyone — CEA and team included — a fair and legitimate opportunity to respond when the topic come up.

Needless to say, the level of booth babe-ism reached awful new lows and reviews of Shapiro and CEA’s position have been well… exactly the same as last year. And, the more the CEA continually fumbles over people’s genuine concerns and increasing discomfort, the more they got whacked over the head — much like Whac-a-Mole.

While the BBC reported that the CEA refused to discuss booth babes with them during the show, the CEA made a statement toMashable afterward that is just outrageous. And, very few people are aware of or didn’t find it as interesting as me that Gary Shapiro actually DID make a statement about booth babes to the BBC two days BEFORE the show started. To be fair, the first statement was buried at the bottom of a preview of the show, which is interesting in and of itself.

But, this statement forms the basis of all three of the points I make about how and why CEA did worse this year. And, why Shapiro also can’t say he was a victim of “gotcha” reporting like he tried to last year.

To the BBC on January 5th, Shapiro said:

“We went out to a group called Women In Consumer Electronics, we had a separate team of our female staff put together and we’ve let our exhibitors know that there are certain expectations that attendees have and that they may be offensive to them,” he explains.

“We heard back from both our staff team and the Women In Consumer Electronics that we should not change our rules, that they like the marketplace as it is.”

“It is a free market out there. If companies make marketing decisions and part of their calculation is that they want to offend some people – and some people are offended – that’s a decision that they make.”

So, Shapiro openly confesses his company takes no responsibility for how their show is received by women attendees — and more and more men who object — or that his organization has any leadership role in setting the tone and level of professionalism one can expect from their trade show. He somehow infers that a women’s group specifically designed to increase the number of women with careers in technology and his female staff are just peachy that we represent less than 20 percent of professionals in STEM industries. Nor do we mind at all encountering women dressed in rubber body suits with the word “fujita” written across their torso, receiving openly explicit sexual marketing ads, or the challenge of trying to be taken as a serious business professional standing alongside women dressed in nothing but lingerie. Because nothing makes me want to learn about or buy an iClam phone case more than… Yeah, you get my point.

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And, I absolutely LOVE that Shapiro makes the statement that CEA let their exhibitors know that attendees have certain expectations and could be offended. It is the FIRST concession — We Have Progress! — this practice may upset people. This statement was reiterated by CEA senior vice president, Karen Chupka, to Mashable following the show.

On January 11th, Chupka says:

“The rules in the PR manuals that go out to the companies planning the event are that they should be properly attired according to decency laws,” Chupka says. “We remind them that the audience is diverse, and they should take into consideration how they display their products.”

According to Mashable columnist Zoe Fox she did a thorough search of the Exhibitor Manual sent to her where the clause should have been and was not able to find anything related to any rules or disclaimers CEA sends to companies. I took it a step further and searched the Terms of Use and CEA’s website for key words “decency laws,” “attire,” and “properly” and came up with nothing. So, the one thing CEA could have done without changing any of their rules and said they did — no one can yet locate.

This is where, if you can believe, things go from bad to worse from CEA.

Reading Ms. Chupka’s statements to Mashable after the show about booth babes and who CEA says is to blame is out right absurd and makes absolutely no sense. Ms. Chupka blames the media for printing the word “babe” and actually says she is “appalled” by it.

“I can’t understand. This is the year 2013, and I thought women had come farther than this. I’m really appalled that anybody prints the word ‘babe’ and thinks that’s okay,” she says.

So let me get this straight. YOUR trade show condones and allows the use of women to be dressed in nothing more than body paint and YOU are appalled the media would print that?!

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Image via Mashable

Ms. Chupka goes further to say, “They were covered in paint. It’s seen a lot at the European shows.”

In fact, Europe and the video gaming industry has been the leaders in outright banning the use of booth babes at their shows, along with China. The Managing Director of EuroGamer Expo, which sees over 50,000 attendees annually, made a statement in October 2012 reinforcing their policy when three companies out of the entire conference showed up with booth babes.

But, what really reaches new levels of irrationality is how Ms. Chupka somehow ties a policy on banning the objectification of women at trade shows to saying that would be like telling everyone they had to dress like “pilgrims.” Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up.

“It’s not our policy, because each company should get to choose how they want to present itself,” she says. “Our show represents a wide variety of industry segments. For us to say you must fit within a role would be like saying you have to dress like a pilgrim.”

What logical connection she was trying to make here is completely lost on me. Though, I find the reference to be somewhat of a humorous Freudian slip. Truly the only people that still seem to thinking and acting like pilgrims is CEA.

What truly bothers me the most about CEA’s position is that they are trying to avoid the truth about what really matters to them and can’t just come out and say it like it is, which I could at least respect. This is about money. CEA has conceded this year that booth babes could be offensive and the increasing number of women and men speaking out on this topic think it’s a hindrance to attracting and retaining more women in technology. This is beside the fact that women continue to adopt technology faster than men and make most of the consumer electronics decisions for the home.

But, the reality is that the CEA conceivably stands to lose a lot of money coming out against this practice and the people they don’t ACTUALLY want to “offend” are their exhibitors and perhaps, the talent agency Ms. Chupka recommends, Judy Venn and Associates, which happens to provide over 75 percent of the nation’s talent for trade shows and conferences.

I have great respect for a woman who has created such a successful business and Ms. Venn does seem to understand the trend for booth babes is waning, but, here’s something I don’t think Ms. Chupka with CEA might be aware of or has researched like I have.

While Ms. Chupka tries to blame the media’s use of the word “babe” as “appalling,” she may also want to look into whether the talent agency she does business with sees any problem with the use of the term. Even as far back as 2011, Ms. Venn noted, “We are finally seeing that most exhibitors are looking for (a professional) type of talent to represent them,” said Venn. “Having said that, you will always find a few hold outs for ‘booth babes.’” And, I find it quite striking CES is noted in the article as one of the industry giants the talent agency works with.

Isn’t there a saying, “just follow the money trail”?

Lastly, while Mashable credits the CEA for employing a significant amount of women in their organization, including 22 of 40 senior staff positions, it is a starkly different tale when you look at their executive management team. Of the 43 members of their Executive Board and Board of Industry Leaders, there are exactly 2 women at the table. That’s 4 percent. Not exactly glowing numbers for the amount of women having input into and making key strategic decisions.

And, really — what does it say when the only other recent article I could find about booth babes was a non-related article about this poor woman who was embarrassed about being the only booth babe when even the New York Produce Show and Conference took a larger stand against this practice?

The use of booth babes is on its way out and CES is one of the last few hold outs. I am so proud of and to be part of the professionals – women AND men– in our industry who support and encourage groups like the Women in AV, Women in CE, and Advancing Women in IT. Join us for another year of inspiring and positive actions on behalf of advancing women in our industry!!